AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 29

Chi Mai is dressed in military uniform, with a K54 on her right side and a dagger on her left. She wears a pair of black boots. The back of the jeep is loaded with a spade, a hoe, and a machete. James is taken out of his cell by two guards. His hands are handcuffed behind his back, and his legs are in shackles. One of the guards helps him get into the jeep. Chi Mai turns on the engine and drives the vehicle on the trail she had driven with the warden a few days before. When they arrive at the end of the trail, she stops the jeep and turns off the engine.

She unlocks the handcuffs and helps him get out the jeep. With his legs still in shackles, James walks with difficulty behind her. Chi Mai walks ahead of him, clearing the way with the machete. She has found the location of the grave that the warden had had his men dig the day before. Chi Mai and James are standing on its edge.

– “James, this is where they will bury you.”

He looks at the bottom of the grave.

– “Today?”

She laughs.

– “No, you’ll have two more weeks. Today, you just use the machete to cut down some trees around here.”

– “For what?”

– “So your hands will be calloused and you will not suffer when you die. What about a cigarette before beginning your task?”

She lights a cigarette and hands it to him.

– “Chi Mai, I don’t understand you.”

– “Soon you’ll understand, my dear. There’s one thing you should remember. We have to be very cautious from now on. Just do whatever I ask, and don’t wait for an explanation. OK?”

– “All right.”

James begins to chop down a tree after he finishes smoking. Chi Mai sits leaning against a tree about 30 feet away, watching him work.

– “Chop it hard, and do it fast.”

She gives orders, and he swings the machete hard. During the first half-hour, the strokes that James deals were firm and rhythmic. Gradually, they become unsteady as he begins to sweat. He’s panting now. Chi Mai giggles.

– “Go on. It’s not time for a break yet. I can see that the American dandy is not used to hard labor.”

James feels the machete getting heavier and heavier. His hands and arms hurt badly. James asks if he may rest for a few minutes. Chi Mai refuses.

– “Either you’ll die in pain or in peace. Would you rather rest or continue?”

James dares not rest now. He continues to chop down the huge trees. The blade in his hands seems to bounce back as he has lost the strength to hold fast to it. His wrists hurt even more each time the machete bounces back. Chi Mai looks at her watch. After exactly an hour, she tells him to stop for a break. She throws the canteen at him. James gulps down the water. He looks at his swollen hands.

– “James, don’t do anything with those blisters. They will become calluses, and you’ll not suffer at your death.”

She throws a pack of cigarettes and a matchbox at him. Because of his weariness, James doesn’t enjoy the cigarette very much. After the break, James continues chopping down the tree. The palms of his hands hurt as though they had been cut open. An hour later, when Chi Mai tells him it’s time for another break, James lies down on the layer of rotten leaves.

– “James, your whole body will ache a lot tonight. But don’t worry. In three days you’ll be fine, and you’ll love to be working in the field. Now you can tell me about your country.”

– “I shall never see my country again.”

– “But I shall go to your country.”

– “When you are there, you’ll see and feel the heart of America. My country is so vast that it takes more than a lifetime for someone to see all of it. The American people often read books to know more about their country. Each writer writes about a certain part of the land or a particular aspect of life. You’ll love our people if you read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. You’ll like the American people when you read William Saroyan’s short stories. Please think of America as myself. You’ll meet people like me in small towns and rural areas. You’ll be disappointed to meet the people on Wall Street. The heart of America cannot be found there.”

– “James, I don’t need to know more about America. You are right in saying you are America.”

– “Just like you are Vietnam.”

She says to him,

– “It’s time for you to go back to work.”

He insists,

– “Let me tell you just one more thing.”

He turns and looks up at her.

– “Have you read ‘Of Mice and Men’”?

She stretches her legs.

– “By John Steinbeck?”

– “Of course.”

– “Yes, I read it in London.”

– “I envy the death of Lennie. I’m going to tell you my dreams. Will you shoot me when I reach the height of my dreams? Like George, you’ll grant me a wonderful death?”

– “Don’t you think you are asking too much?”

– “No, not too much. I believe a person who has suffered is entitled to die while being deep in his dreams.”

– “Will that be the last favor you ask of me?”

– “Yes.”

– “Then keep on doing what I’ve told you.”

James wants to jump toward Chi Mai to embrace and kiss her. But she has stood up and moved away from where he is. Wearily, he stands up and wields the machete again at the big tree. Both of his arms are aching now. They ache more when she’s not near him. James continues working at the tree until it’s late in the afternoon when Chi Mai tells him to stop and walk back to the jeep. She puts the handcuffs and shackles on him after he has gotten into the vehicle.

– “ You only have to work here half a day. Tomorrow we shall leave a little later. In the morning, you must practice running in your cell. Remember, James, this is an order.”

James is moved to his old cell, which had more space. He takes a bath and changes before having his evening meal. He goes to bed and sleeps like a log all night. The singing of the birds awakens James. It’s still early. There’s a heavy feeling all over his body. He tries to get up. James smokes the first cigarette of the day before running in place, just as she has told him. He is anxiously waiting for afternoon, when he can see her again, even though she will force him to labor hard in the sun. James is going to die. One day has passed. Another day is going by. James extinguishes the cigarette. He doesn’t want to think. He stands up again to run in place. He can hear the thudding sound of his feet on the cell floor, the beating of his heart and his breath. When he feels very tried, James rests for a while, then takes a bath and returns to sleep.

After lunch, still in handcuffs and shackles, James is taken to where Chi Mai is waiting in the jeep. The guard helps him get into the jeep for Chi Mai to drive him into the forest.

Today she orders him to hoe up the soil. James holds the hoe handle in his blistered hands.

– “You must clear that termite mound.”

– “What for?”

– “So that you may die peacefully in your dreams.”

– “My hands are hurting badly.”

– “James, this is not hard labor yet. If it were, you would collapse right away. With hard labor, you would be required to work with nothing in your stomach. You would beg for food. You would be ready to do anything, just to have something to ease your hunger. It is hunger and fear that would destroy your character.”

James silently hoes up the termite mound. The soil there is as hard as cement. He wields the hoe really hard, but the blade just sinks in about two inches. Once in a while, the blade springs back, numbing his whole arms. Looking at her watch, Chi Mai urges him to work incessantly. With shackles on both legs, half-naked, and dressed in a pair of trousers for prisoners, James stands on the top of the termite mound. He looks like a medieval slave. Chi Mai sits 90 feet away, according to the prison manual for guards. She smiles as she sees him hoeing up the mound.

– “Ten-minute break now, James.”

James throws down the hoe, jumps to the ground to pick up the canteen. He gulps down water to quench his thirst. The more he drinks, the more he sweats. James lights a cigarette. He looks at his hands. The blister has broken; the liquid inside wets his hands.

– “The termite mound teaches you a lesson, James.”

– “I don’t want to learn anything now.”

– “You need to learn this lesson. It will help you die peacefully in you dreams.”

– “Then what is it?”

– “Nothing lasts forever. This mound may be the great empire of the little termites. It may have been there for centuries. Those little creatures must never have thought that one day, their empire would be destroyed by an American soldier named James Fisher.”

– “That’s an interesting lesson.”

– “Everything that is considered “great” and “eternal” has been or will be destroyed. The only thing that remains is mankind. What do you think, James?”

– “I agree with you.”

– “Then you should continue working on that mound in order to remain.”

James gets back to the top of the termite mound to work. He is entitled to a break every hour. Late in the afternoon, Chi Mai drives him back to the camp. They arrive there later than the day before. James has a good night’s sleep, wakes up, practices running in place, and sleeps again until noon. On the third day, Chi Mai has him clear the bushes. His body stops aching on the fourth day. Calluses start to form on his hand on the fifth day. On the sixth day, James works really hard and doesn’t feel very tried. He eats a lot and sleeps very well. His muscles are stiffer, and his skin is tanned. James is given more meat, fresh vegetables and fruits with his two meals. James knows he is going to die. Everyone will die, sooner or later, although not all of them will die peacefully in their dreams. He has nothing to complain about or regret. James knows he will die in peace as a truthful person.

On the sixth night, Chi Mai comes to his cell to offer herself to him one last time. James believes this is her last favor for him, a condemned prisoner. And he fully savors that favor.

– “My dear Chi Mai…”

She puts her hand over his mouth to hush him. He whispers,

– “I wish that you would place the pistol at my forehead and shoot me while I’m at the top of the ecstasy with you. Do me that favor, will you Chi Mai?”

She doesn’t say anything. All she does is hold him tighter and tighter. He keeps on whispering in her ears,

– “Shoot me now, darling…”

She remains silent while he continues begging for death. His whisper becomes softer and softer before it is immersed in the tempest of pleasure.

—> 30

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